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The Kansas City Star

Hispanic...Latino...Classification Not Easy


September 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Kansas City Star. All rights reserved. 

Hispanic...Latino...What's in a name?

Which is preferred: Hispanic or Latino?

And Chicanos? Are they yet another group?

So, then, what about Mexicans, Cubans, Colombians and Dominicans? Can you view them as subsets without creating linguistic trauma. (yes)

All are honest questions -- especially at this time of year, which gets the title "Hispanic Heritage Month."

No wonder people get confused. The "month," from Sept. 15 to Oct. 16, actually spans two. The period was chosen partly because it encompasses the independence days of several countries, including El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, Chile and Mexico.

A quick primer: Most of the time, the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" are interchangeable. But it is easy to find someone who takes offense at one or the other. Same for "Chicano," which, for some people has political connotations.

The safest bet is to ask people, "What would you like for me to call you?"

Hispanics/Latinos love to share their heritage. That's true whether they trace their roots to Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador or Puerto Rico. (But don't think of Puerto Ricans as foreigners because anyone born there is a U.S. citizen.)

But the month alone isn't the reason these things are important.

The United States is in the midst of a huge demographic shift. Nationally, the number of Hispanics now equals the number of African-Americans. Each group has about 35 million people. Combined, the black and Hispanic populations are about one-fourth of the U.S. population.

The majority of Hispanics nationally and in the metro area are of Mexican descent, but Hispanics with ties to many countries are arriving here daily.

Some people are forced to flee countries fractured by war, political upheaval or natural disasters, such as hurricanes. Some are brought here by corporations for their technical skills. Some arrive as foreign students. Some move from other states. Many are American by birth and simply trace ancestors to Latin countries.

Not easy to classify

Hispanics have lived in the Kansas City area for generations. Some of the first passed through on the Santa Fe Trail. Others came during the Mexican Revolution, in which one out of every eight Mexicans died between 1910 to 1920. Others helped to build the railroads or worked in meat-packing houses that once dotted the West Bottoms.

It is also important to know that some Hispanics never actually "came" to the United States. Many people trace their roots to ancestors who lived in California, Texas, Colorado and southwestern Kansas, when those lands were still Mexican territory.

As a group, Hispanics are not easily classified.

Hispanics are an ethnicity, not a race -- such as white or black. In fact, Hispanics can be of any race. Think of the former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori; he is Japanese and therefore Asian. Picture Fidel Castro; minus the beard, he's a pretty fair-skinned fellow; he's white. But many Cubans are black racially.

Indigenous blood is also very important to many Hispanics. The soldiers of the Spanish conquest mixed with the indigenous Aztecs, resulting in mixed-race Mexicans. The same thing happened in other lands -- the Mayans of Central America and the Incas of Peru, for example.

So, often an array of skin tones can be found within one family, much like in African-American families.

The Spanish language can be viewed as a common thread, to a point.

But the Spanish that is spoken in Cuba is different from the Spanish heard in Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, or the phrases used in Argentina.

Think of a Bronx accent versus a Texas drawl. Same basic language, but with a different delivery, slang and, sometimes, meaning.

Indigenous languages play a role. Many words used in Mexico -- tamale, for example -- have been influenced by the language of the Aztecs, who spoke Nahuatl.

Also, as new generations are born, language is often the first thing lost. Yet a strong identity as a Hispanic may remain.

The business of labels

Now for more on the politics of labels. Hispanic is sometimes viewed negatively, because it was a term popularized by the U.S. government. The Census Bureau brought it into widespread use in 1980, when the bureau began counting Hispanics as a category.

The term Latino is growing in usage. The word has roots in colonial-era politics, when England and France were trying to assert their influence throughout the world.

The term Chicano is more commonly heard in California and the Southwest. The term gained popularity in the 1960s through activist efforts to unify people for political solidarity.

How people choose to identify themselves changes, often depending on how far removed they are from their immigrant ancestors.

But geography is a constant factor keeping the Latino culture fresh. Mexico and the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are relatively close to the United States. It is a lot easierfor a second- or third-generation Mexican-American to travel back to where his grandparents were born than it is for, say, a Polish-American to go back to his family's homeland.

Finally, people often get hung up on the most easily noted differences. Mention Mexico and many people envision folkloric dancers with ribbons in their hair (only at performances); Tex-Mex versions of dishes slathered with sour cream and melted yellow cheese (not at any self-respecting restaurant in Mexico); or the overly hyped Cinco de Mayo (hardly noted in Mexico.)

But dress, language and food are only the most obvious aspects of culture. Murkier, but often far more interesting, are how people think about family, work, time, religion and death.

It is often said it was the iceberg below the surface that sunk the Titanic. The analogy can be applied to culture, too. Immigration shifts have long troubled this country. Yet, America proclaims itself, and is -- except for American Indians -- a land of immigrants.

Today is an important time -- not only for the many Hispanics who are already proud Americans but for the newcomers who may still be learning English and beginning to define their identity in a new land.

The best approach to learning about any person is to simply ask, "Tell me about yourself."

When you ask that of a Hispanic, you might end up learning a lot more than you expected.

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